Israeli scientists match Cairo Geniza fragments

Israeli researcher slams Oxford for not granting access to its folio collection.

May 30, 2013 22:37
2 minute read.
Maimonides’ Commentary on the Mishna in his own hand, is from the Lewis-Gibson Genizah Collection.

Manuscript Rashi script old looking 370. (photo credit: Courtesy of the Governors of Westminster College, )

A team of computer scientists and programmers in Jerusalem, working in collaboration with Tel Aviv University, says it has achieved a breakthrough in piecing together the disparate fragments of the Cairo Geniza.

Prof. Ya’acov Choueka, a Cairo-born chief computerization scientist, is leading a team of 15 programmers from the Friedberg Geniza Project, which is collaborating with Tel Aviv University to “solve the problem” of genizas, or Jewish archives, by scanning the contents of 67 geniza collections around the world.

His team has been able to make more matches between fragments in a matter of weeks than researchers have using traditional methods over the course of decades.

For the past century, scholars have gleaned a wealth of information from the documents discovered in the Cairo Geniza, but research has been hampered by the fact that they were found in pieces and were subsequently split among dozens of collections.

Scholars seeking to piece together the documents have been forced to travel to farflung locales and attempt to make the scraps of paper fit together by hand, a long and cumbersome process.

The Cairo Geniza was the archive of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat, a suburb of Cairo until it was swallowed by the Egyptian capital’s urban sprawl. The documents there were in large part carted off to England, and Cambridge owns some 60 percent of them.

For over a thousand years, sacred texts were deposited in the storeroom, as well as documents attesting to the day-to-day life of medieval Jewish and Arab residents of the Middle East and North Africa. Included were many original manuscripts, variant texts of the Talmud and letters from ordinary people.

Following agreements with Cambridge University and other institutions, Choueka and his team scanned hundreds of thousands of fragments at high resolution, enabling his team to perform more than 4 billion comparisons.

Using several large networked computer clusters at Tel Aviv University, his Jerusalem-based team was “reconstructing the original geniza,” he said on Thursday.

Using several algorithms, his team aims to find all of the “joints,” or matches between fragments, within two weeks. The results of the research were being posted online at for public viewing by academics and laymen alike, revolutionizing the study of the geniza documents, he said.

Physical attributes of the documents are measured by the computers, and fragments from the same pages, and even by the same author, can be paired together.

The results of the research are to be presented at the 16th World Congress of Jewish Studies, to be held at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem from July 28 to August 1.

Not every institution has been cooperative, he said.

According to Choueka, the University of Oxford has been unwilling to provide scans of its manuscripts that are incredibly important to his work.

Talks with the university “did not come to a happy end,” he said, adding that he did not know why.

Oxford did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

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